Praying through depression

  • May 29, 2008

I’m writing this column in a room on the psychiatric ward of a large downtown hospital. I’m not here as a visitor or observer. I’m a patient.

For those of us who live with chronic depression, the crack-up almost always comes suddenly, as an avalanche of grief, helplessness, fear, darkness. But you know for quite a while before the final onslaught that the black dogs are out there in the jungle, circling you and biding their time. Then comes the ambush, overwhelming your diminished defences, leaving you exhausted, confused, unable to believe there is anything worth living and hoping for.

Even when the crisis is over, depression doesn’t simply go away. You will feel, for the rest of your life, at least some desolation most of the time. Even on good days that stretch into weeks or even months of good health, there is always the threat of a relapse. There is no cure. We learn to live with this fact after a while.

We also get used to the misconceptions about depression that many people, including loving family and friends, carry around in their heads.

Contrary to what they believe, it’s not like having a bad day or being saddened by the death of a loved one.

Normal people have ways of perking themselves up and getting back their self-confidence after a run-in with a boss or fellow employee. Trying to be helpful, they tell us some of their tricks for feeling better — a holiday is the usual prescription — in the sincere belief their pick-me-ups work for everyone. They don’t work for people with chronic depression.

Most normal people who experience the common sorrows of life — losing a loved one, going through the excruciating end of a marriage — somehow learn to cope, and they gradually and painfully recover and go on to rejoin the life of the earthly city.

Things aren’t that way for people with chronic depression. We mourn all our lives, not for something or someone we have lost, but for a part of ourselves that was damaged at birth. It’s the part of every person that can feel the beauty of music and art, embrace the good pleasures of life, know the love and presence of God. Especially during the worst times of depression, and, to some extent, all the time, the awareness of all that goodness is muted, and sometimes obliterated with abruptness that is breathtaking.

Even for believing Christians — I’m one of them — depression can induce atheism. Like the atheist, all the time, the depressed Christian often has no awareness of God, the splendour of our salvation or the outpouring of grace throughout all creation. The lights go dark, the inner flame of love is snuffed out, God seems impossibly distant, uncaring, inaccessible — if, indeed, He exists at all. Christians who are depressed must struggle constantly against feelings of abandonment in order to believe anything good about God, or about anything else.

As this latest breakdown was coming on, I complained to a friend that I could not feel anything of God or grace and had stopped praying and even trying to pray. He wisely replied: Feelings are for children. Adults reason and act accordingly. You may not be able to pray, he told me, but you can certainly say your prayers.

It was the best advice about depression I’ve heard in a long time, and trying to take it has almost certainly lessened the misery I’m going through right now. Though they seem to bounce down off the ceiling of the hospital room, I am trying to say my usual prayers. I can’t say doing so is bringing me peace or joy. But perhaps peace and joy are not really what praying is all about. Perhaps it is the opening of the heart to God, accepting His word and His will for one’s life. I’m not yet ready to pray this prayer of openness. But perhaps learning to do so is the one good thing my illness can teach me.

(Mays is a Toronto author and journalist.)

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